The Denver Nuggets are one of the most interesting rebuilding project in the Nba. Most of the fans usually pay attention to bigger names, like the Los Angeles Lakers or Minnesota Timberwolves, or to innovative (or outrageous, depending on your point of view) ideas like The Process in Philadelphia. And Denver being a football city and everything in town being about the Denver Broncos does not help. But in the last few years the Nuggets’ management made the right moves and put together a very talented roster. As of today, they have depth of talent that teams like the Timberwolves and 76ers are lacking. But they don’t have a star, while other teams do. And their depth could hold back the development of potentially good players, forcing them to take decisions without properly evaluating their young group.
It begins with the three guards, first round picks in consecutive drafts, competing for a starting spot. Jamal Murray was the 7th pick last June, and John Calipari provided one of his humble takes, stating the Nuggets “got the steal of the draft”. The hype train was already running at full speed, declaring Murray should start over Mudiay, who had just finished a disappointing rookie season as the fifth pick overall.
The ex Kentucky began the season shooting 0-16 in the first 4 games, showing real issues in his adjustment to the league. This situation brought him to make mistakes in other areas of the game as well. In the Nuggets fifth game, against Detroit, he finally scored his first baskets, and the growth started there and never stopped. As of today, coach Mike Malone is bringing Murray off the bench alongside another veteran in Jameer Nelson. Murray found his rhythm in this “sixth man” role, and is now playing 22 minutes per game. In the game against Philadelphia, on Tuesday night, Murray scored 17 points in just over 13 minutes, starting late in the first quarter until the end of the second. In this stretch, he carried the team on offense and kept the Nuggets within striking distance of a 76ers team relying on their frontcourt (Embiid, Saric, Ilyasova). And if the Nuggets chose to pack the paint, Sergio Rodriguez was ready to punish them from beyond the arc. The most impressive part of Murray’s performance was the ease with which he took over the game in that stretch, showing glimpses of real star-power, albeit against a lowly Philadelphia team.
Jameer Nelson could be the perfect mentor to Murray, and he is doing the rookie right by feeding him as many shots as he can. Nelson is the experienced member of the backcourt and the one tasked with mentoring all of the guards. Despite rumblings of Murray becoming the starter, he is better off coming off the bench for now. Besides, it is too early to give up on Mudiay, even if he did not improve as much as expected during summer. The PG showed flashes of talent especially when he attacks the rim and looks to score, but he still has tunnel vision and takes wild shots in traffic or settles for jumper without even trying to involve his teammates (1 assist in his last 3 games combined). Those possessions often ends up with shots clanking off the rim or with turnovers. Defense has nothing to fear from his outside shot either, since he is shooting an abysmal 27.5% from behind the arc. Opponents are more than happy to let him shoot and go under the pick to pack the paint and limit his athleticism.
But when things are clicking, as it happened in a win against the Phoenix Suns or in an overtime loss against the Oklahoma City Thunder, it is easy to tell why he is worth waiting on.
Coach Malone will have to adjust his rotation again when Gary Harris will be back. As of last year, Harris was the best guard at roster and was shooting a league-average 35.4% from behind the arc. Combining Harris and Murray sharpshooting skills would allow Denver to play a backcourt duo the opponents would be forced to respect, opening the paint for their players.
The only “hole” in their youth movement comes on the wings, where their only rookie is Juan Hernangomez. The Spaniard is adjusting to the league and he had his coming out party against Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors a couple of weeks ago. “Juancho” finished with 11 points and 9 rebounds in roughly 30 minutes of play in what was a blowout loss for the Nuggets, but he also limited Durant to 18 points on 50% shooting (Durant is shooting 56.5% and averaging 27 points per game). Hernangomez held the former MVP to slightly lower percentages and sent him to the line only twice in the whole game, a great performance considering he was guarding a former league MVP. From that game on, he has been playing around 15 minutes per game and doing well.
But of course the great question mark this summer was how Malone would have managed the frontcourt duo of Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic. The former, a 7-feet, 280 pounds center, was impressive in his rookie season. A knee injury kept him on the sidelines for most of his sophomore year, and even when he came back, he showed up out of shape and mostly frustrated for losing his starting spot in favor of Jokic, a similar player who is not as dominant a force on the physical side but has much better fundamentals and footwork. Jokic has great hands and court vision, can score both front and back to the basket, from the mid-range and from behind the arc and he is at his best when the offense runs through him at the elbows. He is good on defense and can rebound. Jokic and Nurkic are similar, the former could be the kind of player any team could build around, while the latter has the potential to be a key player for a playoff team.
The experiment of playing them together gave poor results, and Malone aborted it less than 20 games into the season. As of right now, in this roster, the two centers are limited by each other’s presence, and without any established hierarchy, both are playing below their potential. Last year, Jokic was the third best rookie in the league and some believed he could be in the same conversation with Towns and Porzingis. It was not just a wild theory, every projection gave him as close to them as he could be. It was Jokic who asked coach Malone to come off the bench, believing that the move would have been better for both him and Nurkic. Which should be enough to explain why the Nuggets have a problem of too much talent on roster.
As if it was not enough, Malik Beasley has been playing mostly garbage time (his best game was a 12-points-in-15-minutes performance against the Warriors) and will see his minutes reduced once Harris is back. The Nuggets have no particular goals for the season aside developing their players and figuring out their roster. Their 8-13 record is more or less where it should be, although the most optimistic prediction saw them fighting for a playoff spot. The best thing that might happen this season is a trade to balance their roster and finally carve some spots for their talented young players. Including the one coming with their 2017 lottery pick.